By Amy Helmes
Special to TelevisionWeek
Don’t blame me. My evil twin did it.” That’s the motto on a T-shirt distributed by SoapNet as part of the 24-hour cable network’s ongoing effort to relay its hip, slightly offbeat take on the soap genre while building brand awareness. Other giveaways have included a nail file (for razor-sharp catfight claws), a “Who Shot J.R.?”-themed “Dallas” dartboard set and wine charms depicting classic characterizations, such as “Perfect Ingenue” and “Devious Schemer.”
No marketing tactic SoapNet employs is without a tongue-in-cheek nod to the unique conventions and archetypes of daytime dramas: the wealthy schemers, back-stabbing divas, rampant infidelity and returns from the dead that even nonfans readily associate with serial dramas. “We don’t ever think that we’re poking fun at soaps,” said network Marketing VP Sherri York. “I think what we try to convey is the real fun behind them.”
One stereotype SoapNet refuses to play into, however, is the perception of soap viewers as idle homebodies who lack sophistication. “Our audience is younger and has higher income levels than what you would ever perhaps imagine a soap viewer to be. We don’t dumb anything down,” said Ms. York, who before joining the network was director of marketing and communications at MTV Networks.
SoapNet’s marketing ploys have likely played a key part in the network’s rapid growth in ratings, subscribers and ad sales and are well-received within the industry. Daytime actors have been gung-ho about lending their images to the network’s clever interstitials and network IDs, while show producers occasionally tap the network’s marketing team to kick-start their personal promotional efforts.
SoapNet understands the unique passion of diehard genre fans and their affinity for specific characters. Various viewer factions, for instance, back specific soap couples, calling themselves “NEM” fans (for the characters of Nikolas and Emily on “General Hospital”) or “BAM” (for “All My Children’s” former lesbian pairing of Bianca and Maggie). In light of that, SoapNet’s online store offers bracelets engraved with “NEM” or “BAM,” appealing to those niche viewers and demonstrating an insider’s understanding of soaps’ most faithful followers.
Still, Ms. York said, the general rule for marketing is never to get hung up on specific shows or characters. It simply doesn’t resonate with the general public as much as more transcendent concepts, she said.
Walking a Fine Line
In keeping with that perspective, the network won a CTAM Mark Award for one of its earliest campaigns, in which cable operators were sent cigars with the titillating message: “Launch SoapNet and celebrate with a cigar. A Cuban cigar … in Cuba … with your coworker’s ex-wife.”
Hoping to elicit laughs while also raising a few eyebrows can occasionally be a tricky line to walk. The network’s lawyers balked, for instance, at the idea of inserting into New Parent magazine door hangers that read, “Do Not Disturb-Paternity Test Pending.”
Undaunted, the marketing department wrote a humorous disclaimer for the discredited marketing tool, claiming SoapNet was in no way implying that the recipient was a lying, cheating slut. “We sent this to our attorneys and they came back and said fine,” Ms. York said. “So we sent it out.”
The more praise and attention the network receives with regard to its marketing ploys, the more compelled its executives are to push the creative edge. For a stunt on ill-fated soap weddings called “Wedding Interruptus,” SoapNet gave away T-shirts that said, “I don’t,” as well as “Cold Feet” slippers.
The network also produced a kit of fake business cards for people wishing to pass themselves off as soap-worthy alter-egos, such as oil tycoons or private investigators. “Those continue to give us a lot of attention,” Ms. York said.
Building the SoapNet brand can be hard work, but when you’re dealing with subjects like sex, lies and love triangles, there’s also more than a little room for levity.
“We work very hard because there’s a lot of programming to know about and promote,” Ms. York said. “But we have great fun in the process-and we know it rubs off on our viewers.”